A Travellerspoint blog

September 2011

The past two months - a lifetime of travel

Canada, America = Family Germany, Poland = Research and Reunions Turkey = Reality Croatia, Montenegro = Dream

Turkey- one week, then another. I spent this past weekend, for the first time, staying with a Turkish family. I've been living in Turkey for a year now but not once did I have the opportunity to actually spend time in a familial situation. I'm fortunate enough to have a very close friend here, who invited me to her hometown to attend a traditional wedding ceremony, and also meet her family in the process. Although there were differences in terms of how life is lived, I think the most important thing is just to be open. Instead of needing to eat at a certain time, or only wanting to discuss certain topics, it's important to see how others live and try to blend in with it in order to really experience as much as possible in the short time available to do so. Family is really important here, and particularly in Bolu, the city I went to, neighbourhoods are close - everyone knows everyone. I think this can lead to a certain amount of pressure, but on the flipside you're surrounded by a pretty substantial group of people who love you and would do anything for you.

Saturday we discovered the city, but there wasn't really much to be seen. The highlight was an old hamam (Turkish baths), that's been turned into a cafe and shoe store - it was beautiful, and one of the most serene places I've ever sat in. The main reason to visit Bolu are its natural surroundings. Sunday we took a day trip to Abant, which is a lake nearby, where one can fish and stroll. Picnics are extremely popular here, so the parking lots are packed with vans full of people coming out for a nice Sunday meal with family and friends. It's become extremely popular with Iranian tourists, so while walking we saw many women wearing the niqab. One of the girls I was with was quite uncomfortable with this; she said she hates not being able to see faces, it makes her feel like there's something missing. It's not very common in Turkey either, so that's probably why it strikes her. As we left, we decided to stop by another small lake area nearby called Gülköy. We were able to spot sünnet celebrations, and even walk up and watch. The child receiving the circumcision is like a star, he wears a cape and carries around a sceptre. The family hires dancers, and musicians and (of course) there is a lot of dancing! What surprised me about this is that it's not a baby, but rather a 7 or perhaps a 10 year old boy. To me, age alters the arguments about circumcision. I had always thought it was only performed on babies, but in some way it being a child instead changes my opinion of it... Rather than going off on a tangent, I'll get back to my travels.

The best part of my weekend was, of course, the düğün (wedding) I attended. It was full of people, all seated around these incredibly long tables in the hall. The bridge and groom sit at the front in the centre, and each has their respective side full of family. The ceremony starts when they walk in and start dancing, then joined by everyone else. We danced cezayir style, which apparently is very popular in the Black Sea Region. After a while the dancing stops, and it's time for gifts to be given - either money or gold coins. The bridge and groom stand at the front, while people line up to pin their coins or money onto their sashes. The whole time announcements are made about who's given what. After this incredibly long process the cake is cut, and dancing resumes. There was no meal served, and no party favours given - the focus instead is on dancing. Another interesting difference is that for the most part the men dance with men, and women with women. In addition, the people dancing are usually only those close with the bride and groom, distant acquaintances don't dance because people might talk. Although I'm sure many weddings are this way, my friend made it a point to mention that this is a more traditional wedding for two people from fairly humble backgrounds so if I were to attend a student's wedding here at the University in Ankara it would probably be quite different. Instead of traditional music for example, there would probably be a lot of pop played. I'm so grateful I was able to participate in this one. I danced my heart out. I think I surprised quite a few people. Another interesting observation for me was that alcohol was not served, and that for the first time I saw a bride wearing a hijab - this was the first Muslim wedding I've ever attended.

The next day, while leaving, I mentioned to my friend's mother the travels I'd done in the past two months and she mistakenly thought I was talking about where I'd been since childhood. This is when I realized it's time for me to sit down and write an entry. This is going to be a long process, but I'll try to give a summary of my recent voyages because the purposes have truly been varied.

North America - my home, and more-or-less native land. I went back to Toronto, Canada for the first time after moving to Turkey 10 months prior. I saw things differently, which surprised me. I hadn't expected people to be as friendly as they were, or as fit for that matter. I think being away for 10 months and listening to others' opinions and stereotypes had somehow caused my memory to reform itself. It was between 30 and 40 degrees for a good portion of my time there, which created a barrier between me and the activities I wanted to partake in, i.e. bike riding. I did, however, manage to take advantage of the culture Toronto has to offer. I went to a number of plays, including a Shakespearean one at Stratford, and a fringe festival one. I also went to the Harbourfront and various locations - I tried to play it like a tourist and really exploit the city for all its worth. There are so many amazing neighbourhoods that I seldom go to, like Roncesvalles, Distillery District or the Beaches for example. My time was mostly devoted to seeing friends and family, attending themed parties and basically just having fun. One of the best nights was right before I left when I went to Kensington Market with friends, to a bar called The Boat where we danced to music through all decades starting from the 40s. Time machine gibi.

During my time at home, I took a quick trip to Chicago, U.S.A. with my mother and sister in order to visit my family who live there. Once again I was surprised at just how friendly everyone was - from shop attendants to people on the street. I did a bit of a walking tour with a friend who I met up with there; we visited Millenium Park, and the new statue of Marilyn Monroe, which for some reason has everyone talking - is it an eyesore, or an aesthetic pleasure for the streets? Personally, I think it's an easy way to make tourists feel that they've seen yet another cool sight, that simple. I also went to the zoo there for the first time, which is free, and quite well-maintained it seemed. Zoos are always slightly depressing though, but moreso because there were no orangutans, who, after my time collecting data on last summer at the Toronto zoo, I've grown an affinity for. The most fulfilling time was spent with my family of course, but I also enjoyed the Art Institute of Chicago where I was able to see a really impressive Impressionist Gallery. This was in contrast to the also amazing Art Gallery of Ontario, where I saw an exhibit on Abstract Expressionism - maybe a third of which I understood something from. Unfortunately most of the time black squares don't cause ecstatic responses from deep within me...

All in all, I was able to actually have a vacation at home, which I'm privileged for - it's not that often someone can play tourist in their own city, although maybe that's all people need to appreciate it a little more?

Germany and Poland - learning. I went to Germany and Poland once again to take part in the Learning From the Past Teaching for the Future Program (TFTF). This was quite a different trip than last time. In my previous trips to Poland and Germany I spent almost every day at a site associated with the Holocaust, for example Treblinka or Ravensbruck, but this time while in Poland we stayed in Poznan and were on the Adam Mickiewicz University campus all throughout the day. I enjoyed Poland a lot more this time, since I was able to see it so much in its contemporary form. Of course what I gained the most from was discussions with other participants. Life is all about stories, and in this way other thoughts are triggered within you, I think. For example, I spent a lot of time talking with a Polish participant who's doing his M.A. at the aforementioned University. We discussed a situation I hadn't given much thought to before: the repercussions that women had to deal with after the war, in terms of the sexual abuse they quite often faced (in a number of countries, in fact). After being raped and (for some) becoming pregnant, the woman is often regarded in some way not as a victim but as a perpetrator of some heinous act - she's brought shame to her family. This attitude still exists. There are biases, which haven't disappeared.

Poland is a country in which you are very much aware of the past, but it's not as in-your-face as in certain cities in Germany like Berlinfor example. In Poznan there is a former Synagogue, which has been converted into a swimming pool, and all you see is a small plaque on the wall - you would never know otherwise; whereas in Berlin sometimes it feels like everywhere you walk you're being explicitly reminded of what happened, whether it's through the stumbling stones on the ground, the signs or the heavily protected Synagogues. What's fascinating is how both countries are dealing with the legacy of the past in different ways, particularly through their museums and education systems - Poland is definitely not as developed as Germany in this sense. One problem I noticed in Germany though is that through its sincere, and omnipresent reminders of its past (and simultaneous apologeticness for it) one wonders about the present minority groups, for example the Turks. I spent some time, once again in Kreuzberg where I noticed even moreso the number of Turkish speakers who reside there. When they face discrimination (quite possibly) on a regular basis, and have a very rich cultural history which may not be appreciated in their "new" homeland, how does this make them feel? I spoke with one friend about this, himself a recent immigrant to Germany. He sees the tension, without question, but at the same time it probably just requires some minimal reforms. He, himself, likes his life in Berlin, because he's left to his own devices. He lives with another immigrant to the country, and they admitted that they have hardly any German friends, but that they're not resentful rather it's just the way things have happened. C'est la vie. I found myself falling in love with Berlin, even moreso this time than the last. Although in Poland I look like I fit in more, physical appearance is meaningless when you can't understand what's happening around you - even though many people speak English, I'd feel embarassed taking so long to learn the language. Even this weekend, I tried to speak Turkish the whole time, because while speaking English I realize I just don't want to. If I'm not in an English speaking environment I'd rather not speak it for some reason - perhaps I don't want to draw attention to myself, or maybe I just really want to test myself as much as possible.

This entry is becoming a stew.

Turkey - reality. After Germany I flew back to Turkey. I was coming home, and I felt relaxed but uneasy all at once. I'm here for another year. Another year without my comfortable Canadian environs. I was lucky this time because the time difference didn't exist, which meant I was basically able to sleep from the start; however, I was exhausted from already 4 weeks of travel and especially the last part (Germany and Poland), since we were attending workshops daily and going out at night. I missed my friends already as well. The amount of reflection and discussion a trip like the Germany/Poland one allows for is exceptional - everything you hear, you're free to critique or ask about, or admire - it's like a no-holds-barred academic and emotional environment, particularly with some of my closer friends. We reflect to death about everything.

So, uneasy in the sense of missing the lives I've just lived this summer, but fortunate because I know Ankara. I know my place here now to a certain extent. Most importantly I was coming back with friends, knowledge and some language skills. I left my computer charger in Poland, so I had to work my way around that here, but I had the help of really wonderful friends as well as my ability this year to express myself (as limited as it may be) in Turkish. Last year I would have cried, this year I was able to laugh and go out for dinner instead to my favourite restaurant. It being Ramazan when I got here, I was able to participate in Iftar celebrations twice: once with a Turkish friend in a very traditional neighbourhood here called Hamamönü and once with two Canadian friends at a favourite restaurant on Tunali st. where the manager remembered me and invited us to a free gourmet buffet meal. Turkish people are generally incredibly generous. I really am happy to be back here in so many ways. There's a life that I've built here, which I know will be coming to an end, but while I'm still here this year I want to really take advantage of all the opportunities available. I have plans for the future, although who knows how things could change...

Another thing that surprised me this summer and then coming back here was some of the bias that people have toward Turkey. There were people who were shocked that I was coming back, they couldn't understand what would bring me back here, and couldn't believe when I described how safe I typically feel here. There's a portion from a lecture I listened to today, which I feel is appropriate here - it's by William Ury. "Today we face the scourge of terrorism. What is terrorism? Terrorism is basically taking an innocent stranger and treating them as an enemy whom you kill in order to create fear. What's the opposite of terrorism? It's taking an innocent stranger and treating them as a friend whom you welcome into your home in order to sow and and create understanding, or respect, or love." I can't explain the amount of warmth I've received from people here, taking me in and treating me well, not to receive anything from it but just out of the kindness of their hearts. The lecture was apt for this entry, as it's about conflict resolution and focuses primarily on the Middle East (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/william_ury.html). It's undeniable that there's conflict here, even since coming back to Turkey I've become more aware of the increasing problems with the Israeli government, the PKK and so on; however, that doesn't mean that daily lives have changed drastically in Ankara. Whether that's a good thing or not I'm not sure. Today for example, speaking with a coworker, she mentioned that it's animalistic almost to be watching TV, see that 13 soldiers have been killed in the East and then to go eat dinner - how can it be so normalized? It's a valid question. Turkey is like this - it's divided in so many ways: East and West, rich and poor, religious and secular and so on... This year I feel like I'm almost obligated to look more into some of these issues, not just watch movies but try to do some more research about these subjects and the relationships that exist (as tenuous as they may sometimes be). I'm reading a book right now called "The Help", and in the book as in the lecture as in all travels it's so clear, we have 10 fingers, 10 toes, we feel pain, laugh and experience life in similar ways as different as we may feel at times. Ah humanity!

Croatia and Montenegro - After my return to Turkey for one week, we had Şeker Bayramı one week holiday, so I was off again. Kate had already left on Thursday night, but I chose to wait: visiting Istanbul instead and then flying off to Zagreb, where I arrived on Sunday night. I travelled with two other friends there, so that was good company, but upon arrival we split up to find our respective hostels. The first people I met were two very unimpressed Spaniards who complained to me about the lack of running water, the lack of hospitality and basically the lack of anything which they would typically associate with vacation time. Seasoned travels they were not. With travel comes many realizations, including the understanding that often (if not usually) things won't go your way and it's fine to complain, but it's not really fair to blacklist a whole place and a vacation before it's even started because of this. That being said, I found my hostel with ease, and even had free use of public transport because I just frankly didn't know what to do in order to buy a ticket - Croatian is not easy to suddenly decipher without previous knowledge. Funnily enough throughout my travels in Croatia and Montenegro I ended up using a few languages, which I don't really know at all - I would construct a sentence with a third Polish, a third Italian and a third English for example and then respond with charasho or dobra. What made matters worse is that often people assumed I was Croatian because of my appearance, so I just felt slightly silly not being able to respond even though obviously I would never have been able to or should have been able to. I was able to empathize better with Cynthia who is often mistaken for Turkish until she opens her mouth, at which point people just become confused. Anyway, Zagreb itself, to be honest, is nice and quite small with some very Soviet looking architecture particularly near the train station, but it didn't feel special to me. Croatia, to me, was about the coast. The best part of Zagreb was sitting around with friends, and other travellers and drinking Ožujsko Limun, one of the most delicious beers I've ever had. We sat, and we chatted and I got sassed by multiple Croatians. The people there I found remarkably unfriendly toward me and quite often downright rude. It was actually quite comical. For example, at this "breery" (my version of a brewery) we went to, I decided to order milk with honey for some reason. On the menu it was described as hot, but when it arrived it was cold. I gave it a stare down and the angry waiter basically spat out at me, "do you have a problem?". I frantically shook my head. I later went on a quest for a spoon, because he wasn't bringing one. I was directed repeatedly to the washroom, when I finally achieved my goal of obtaining a spoon I returned to the table to find the angry waiter there, spoon in hand. I also managed to somehow get accidentally forced into stealing a beer glass from a bar - a linguistic misunderstanding, which I didn't want to make any worse, so I hid it and left. In Germany my crime was stealing a loaf of bread from a bar, Croatia it's glass... I can't help but wonder what's next?

Kate and I managed to travel to a variety of places on our Croatian and Montenegran voyage, including Plitvice natural park area, which was far too crowded for my liking and a party island called Hvar. We spent two nights in Split, which were quite relaxing. We went to the main square both times and listened to live music (in English). We also saw traditional Croatian dancing, and met some other pairs of tourists. In Split, we went to the Synagogue, where we met a really dedicated volunteer who taught us all about the Jewish community in Croatia before and after WWII. He talked about how there were roughly 41 Synagogues before, but at present there are 3 - also, the need for a community to come together regardless of Orthodox or reform leanings. It was pure, because his desire came from a good source: he just wanted traditions to continue, and most importantly he truly wanted to learn about how Jewish life was before the Nazis' attempt to destroy it. He said that, at present, they work closely with the Muslim community in Split because they relate to each other. He also said that the Catholic school brings children to visit the Synagogue on class trips, and that they are seemingly free of many of the biases that existed when he was a youth (he was in his 50s or 60s I would estimate). We also visited the Jewish cemetery in Split, which was appropriate because it was on the day of my grandmother's funeral, which was taking place in Australia - clearly I couldn't be there, but it was hard nonetheless, and maybe even moreso for it... There's a sense of confusion I always feel when I visit Jewish sites, particularly ones that have in some way been affected by the Holocaust. I can't explain, but my identity is always in question.

Hvar was our next stop, and it was gorgeous. The whole trip, apart from Zagreb, was hot. For Kate this was difficult as she's not one for the heat, she turns red and gets extremely uncomfortable; however, we tried to use it to our advantage. For example, we ate ice cream on a daily basis, and swam at the beaches we found. Our accommodation turned out to basically be a luxury suite for 4 people because the owner upgraded us free of charge. The view was spectacular, and we were in between a bigger, nicer (more local friendly) beach and the city centre - walking distance to everything. We explored during the day, and once again ran into our other traveller buddies - the Texans and the Irish. It seems that there's a pretty clear route that a lot of people follow. We climbed up to an old fortress and soaked up the view. Looking down on the city, with its innumerable alleys, beautiful rocks and harbour it just makes you feel full, being there and breathing in clean air. The beach was wonderful too, because there was shade, and the water was so refreshing. I spent my time there talking with the owner (who's about 27 yrs.) of our lodgings, who happened to be spending the evening at the beach too. I asked him about a lot of things, dating, the war, Croatian food etc. Although Hvar wasn't destroyed, it was still affected in various ways in the early 90s and he said Croatia still has some remnants of the war to contend with. That night we went out, the three of us, and discovered (more like, he guided us) into the crazy ways of Croatian nightlife. Alcohol is basically thrown at you from all sides, and the parties spill out from the bars into the alleys. There are boats that will take you to islands where the entire area is covered by one massive club, with swimming pools and all. It's a different world.

One hour of sleep, and a lot of fun later we set off for Dubrovnik. Once again, the views were spectacular. Upon arrival I was just thoroughly irritated though, frankly. It was boiling hot, I hadn't slept, I was itchy from the heat rashes (which I had the whole time in Croatia), and we didn't have a way to contact the woman we were staying with - just an address. We took a cab and arrived there, but she wasn't there. Luckily, there was another traveller there who was kind enough to lend us his resources, and she came right over. We befriended him, and he and his brother became our Dubrovnik/Montenegro travel buddies. We spent two out of three nights in Dubrovnik's old town, where we walked around and enjoyed the free music filling the streets, and the tourists on every corner (sometimes fighting, sometimes loving each other). In fact, it's an extremely romantic city, and country really! I mentioned to Kate that I wouldn't have wanted to travel it alone, I would have felt really lonely since accommodation isn't typically hostels so it's harder to meet people and you're surrounded by couples and groups. Australia is a haven for single backpackers, Croatia is not.

Our lodging was right beside a beach, but it was too crowded so we walked a tiny bit to an area that was full of lounge chairs supplied by a waterside bar. We didn't purchase anything, but we lounged and read and swam and enjoyed life. Actually being able to relax was amazing - it didn't/doesn't happen often enough. Dubrovnik itself we spent a day exploring. We split up, which worked out well because we wanted to do different things. She was an exceptionally good travel partner, since we were open and there were no misunderstandings. I participated in a war-themed walking tour of Dubrovnik. It felt like I was watching a cartoon half the time, because the guide kept leaving us with cliffhangers like, "As I said, there is still a lot of hostility at present between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, but what will be of our future? Let's walk around this corner and find someone who might have a clue for us." He then walked us over to a statue of a man holding a shield and a sword, and basically gave us his pessimistic prediction for the region's future. His accuracy will soon be tested, I suppose. I did learn a lot, regardless of the occasional cheesy lines he threw in. He talked to us about how most of Dubrovnik's damage came in one day in 1991, when about 13 civilians were killed. Walking through the city you can see which houses were hit and which weren't by signs like the colour: how white are the window frames, and how red is the roof for example. He also told us about how Serbs are perceived there, and how hard-hit Bosnia was. One interesting fact related to the number of mixed couples before and after the war. Statistics can be misleading, but he said something like 14% of marriages were mixed before, and at present it's about 4%. I think what I most appreciated was the background he provided. He told us about Tito, and what a unifying force he was - history I wasn't aware of.

There's no question that Dubrovnik is a tourist destination, but I think it's more for its beautiful sights than for its war history, black tourism hasn't become an "it" thing. Within the city there are a number of beautiful buildings to visit, great restaurants to eat at and the walls (surrounding the city) to walk along - there's more than enough to do without even thinking about the damage suffered during the war. I really wonder how often locals receive questions about it. I also wonder about the appropriateness of it. Is it fair to ask someone what it was like living through a war? Is it right to question someone because it's your opportunity to do so for your one day there, while they're facing tourists 365 days a year who might be forcing them to relive these experiences? My train of thought is that they probably repeat the story so many times that it becomes normal for them to do so. Again, there's no prescriptive nature to my observations, just to clarify. When we went to Kotor, Montenegro I asked a server where he was from, and he told us he was Bosnian but that there were no opportunities there. He then went on to explain a bit about the languages. Basically they're the same he said, if it weren't for the politics they would probably have one name. The writing, however, differs. In Montenegro they use both Cyrillic and Latin writing, while in Croatia it's just the Latin alphabet. The currency is also different, with the euro being used in Montenegro and the kuna in Croatia. I actually found Croatia to be surprisingly expensive, although I suppose it's probably not - coming from Turkey it struck me though. If I had been coming straight from Germany I'm sure I would have been thrilled.

Our time in Montenegro involved the two brothers, Kate and I driving around in our rented car frequently stopping to take photos of the endless beauty of the landscapes there. We sang, chatted and soaked up the views. Our main stop was in Kotor, where David and I climbed up to the fortress. It felt like it was 40 degrees, and probably for this reason we didn't make it to the top, but we did make it close. Along the way he picked up a fan that someone had left behind and in my pink dress, with fan in hand I sauntered back down the massive stone steps to a shady, alley where we paused to buy ice cream before returning to our comrades. The climb was worth it for the views, and also the conversation. You really do meet amazing people when you travel. It might be because you basically only see a snapshot (probably the best side), but regardless there's something to learn. We went off to Perast after, where we swam and basically just cooled off. The highlight had to be our attempt to leave Montenegro. It involved us stuck in between the two countries in traffic for over 3 hours. We started a dance party, and played alcohol-free drinking games involving an entity named "Pam Pam". Basically we kept ourselves entertained, although I did meander around and manage to hold a very basic conversation with a German tourist who refused my offering of Ritter sport. Keeping with the vacation theme (=no sleep) we spent our last night first at a gorgeous bar on the rocks in Dubrovnik, and then at a massive club. I can't remember the last time I went to a club like that. We danced for hours, and really just had a ton of fun before heading back to leave for Turkey. Once again, we didn't manage to sneak in any sleep before our departure. The past week has basically been a recovery process, dealing with the aftermath of two months of non-stop movement. I have this week and the next to take a break before I'm off again, possibly to Istanbul, probably to Bodrum and then in just over a month to South Africa!

I'm an addict, what can I say? Travel is what I know, it's what I do.

... Pictures to come, and possibly additional anecdotes :)

Posted by madrugada 04:30 Comments (0)

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